In South India, a devadasi (Sanskrit: servant of deva (god) or devi (goddess)) is a girl "dedicated" to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. The dedication takes place in a Pottukattu ceremony which is similar in some ways to marriage. Originally, in addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women learned and practiced Sadir (Bharatanatya), Odissi and other classical Indian artistic traditions and enjoyed a high social status as dance and music were essential part of temple worship.
Traditionally devadasis had a high status in society. After marrying wealthy patrons, they spent their time honing their skills instead of becoming a housewife. They had children from their husbands who were also taught their skills of music or dance. Often their patrons had another wife who served them as housewife.
During British rule in the Indian subcontinent, kings who were the patrons of temples and temple arts became powerless. As a result, devadasis were left without their traditional means of support and patronage. During colonial times, reformists worked towards outlawing the devadasi tradition on grounds that it supported prostitution. Colonial views on devadasis are hotly disputed by several groups and organizations in India and by western academics as the inability of the British to distinguish them from the girls who danced in the streets for the reasons other than spiritual devotion to the deity as in socio-economic deprivation and perusal of folk arts.
Devadasis are also known by various other local terms, such as jogini. Furthermore, the devadasi practice is known as basivi in Karnataka and matangi in Maharashtra. It is also known as venkatasani, nailis, muralis and theradiyan.There were Devadasis from iyer communities as they performed Bharatanatiyam. Devadasi are sometimes referred to as a caste; however, some question the accuracy of this usage. "According to the devadasis themselves there exists a devadasi 'way of life' or 'professional ethic' (vritti, murai) but not a devadasi jāti (sub-caste). Later, the office of devadasi became hereditary but it did not confer the right to work without adequate qualification" (Amrit Srinivasan, 1985). In Europe the term bayadere (from French: bayadère, ascending to Portuguese: balhadeira, literally dancer) was occasionally used.
Ancient and medieval history
The first reference to dancing girls in temples is found in Kalidasa's "Meghadhoot". It is said that dancing girls were present at the time of worship in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain. Some scholars are of the opinion that probably the custom of dedicating girls to temples became quite common in the 6th century CE, as most of the Puranas containing reference to it have been written during this period. Several Puranas recommended that arrangements should be made to enlist the services of singing girls for worship at temples.
By the end of 10th century, the total number of devadasis in many temples was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the temple. During the medieval period, they were regarded as a part of the normal establishment of temples; they occupied a rank next only to priests and their number often reached high proportions. For example, there were 400 devadasis attached to the temples at Tanjore and Travancore.
Local kings often invited temple dancers to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers, rajadasis, and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself to the god, but the rajadasi's dance was meant to be an entertainment.
The popularity of devadasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century CE. The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. Invaders from West Asia attained their first victory in India at the beginning of the second millennium CE. The destruction of temples by invaders started from the northwestern borders of the country and spread through the whole of the country. Thereafter the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery, and, in many cases, prostitution.
Many scholars maintain that the devadasi system is not described in the holy scriptures of Hinduism as the scriptures do not refer to any form of sacred prostitution or temple girls. Whether the devadasi girls engaged in sexual services is debated, however, as temple visitors touching or speaking to the girls was considered an offence.
Another theory for the practice of parents dedicating their daughters to a temple is the belief that they would receive moksha or salvation.
Devadasis in South India and the Chola empire (Devar Adigalar)
The Chola empire encouraged the devadasi system, In Tamil they are known as Devar Adigalar, ("Deva" being Sanskrit for "God" and Adigalar" "Servants", i.e. "God's Servant"). Both male and female Devadasi were dedicated to the service of a temple and its god. They developed the system of music and dance employed during temple festivals.
Inscriptions reveal that 400 dancers, along with their gurus and orchestras, were maintained by the Brihadeesvarar temple, Thanjavur, with munificent grants, including the daily disbursement of oil, turmeric, betel leaves and nuts.
Nattuvanars were the male accompanists of the devadasi during her performance. They conducted the music orchestra while the devadasi performed her service. Inscriptions reveal that nattuvanars were used to teach the Chola princess Kuntavai a thousand years ago.
As the Chola empire expanded in wealth and size, they built more temples throughout their country. Soon other emperors started imitating the Chola empire and developed the system.
A community of Karnataka living in Andhra Pradesh, the Natavalollu are also known as Nattuvaru, Banajiga Natavollu, Bogam, Bhogam, Bogam Balija or Kalavanthulu.
Balijas at the census, 1901, were:—
Jakkulas, among whom it was, at Tenali in the Kistna district, formerly customary for each family to give up one girl for prostitution. Under the influence of social reform, a written agreement was a few years ago entered into to give up the practice.
Ādapāpa. Female attendants on the ladies of the families of Zamindars, who, as they are not allowed to marry, lead a life of prostitution. Their sons call themselves Balijas. In some places, e.g., the Kistna and Godāvari districts, this class is known as Khasa or Khasavandlu.
Sri Raja Venugopala Krishna Yachendralu Garu, unmarried, but had issue, two illegitimate sons by Saraswathamma, a dasi of the Balija community (#4). He died spl 20 June 1920
Natavalollu /Kalawant A community of Andhra Pradesh, they are also referred to as Devadasi, Bogamvallu, Ganikulu and Sani and are distributed throughout the state. Kalavantulu means one who is engaged in art
Mahari Devadasi of Odisha
Unlike in other parts of India, in the eastern state of Odisha the devadasis, also known colloquially as Mahari(s)of the Jagannath temple complex, have never practiced prostitution, and have been expected to remain celibate from the time they became devadasis. However,they did have relationships and children, so this practice was obviously not strictly adhered to. It is said that the daughters of the Maharis of the Jagannath temple took to other professions such as nursing in the mid 20th century,because of the stigma attached to their inherent profession, which does suggest prostitution. Devadasi is a name given to a group of women who danced in the temple premises. The word devadasi or mahari means "those great women who can control natural human impulses, their five senses and can submit themselves completely to God (Vachaspati)." Mahari means Mohan Nari that is, the woman belonging to God. Sri Chaitanayadev had defined devadasis as 'Sebaets' who served God through dance and music. Pankaj Charan Das, the oldest Guru of Odissi classical dance, who comes from a Mahari family, explains Mahari as Maha Ripu -Ari (one who conquers the five main ripus - enemies ).
The Orissa Gazette of 1956 lists nine devadasis and eleven temple musicians. By 1980, only four devadasis were left – Harapriya, Kokilprabha, Parashmani and Shashimani. By 1998, Only Shashimani and Parashmani were alive. The daily ritualistic dance had stopped long ago. This twosome served in a few of the yearly temple rituals like Nabakalebar, Nanda Utsav and Duar Paka during Bahuda Jatra.
Yellamma cult of Karnataka in South India
In the state of Karnataka in the region of South India the devadasi system was followed for over 10 centuries. Chief among them was the Yellamma cult.
There are many stories about the origin of the Yellamma cult. The most prevalent one says that Renuka was the daughter of a Brahmin, married to sage Jamadagni and was the mother of five sons. She used to bring water from the river Malaprabha for the sage's worship and rituals. One day while she was at the river, she saw a group of youths engaged themselves in water sports and forgot to return home in time which made Jamadagni to suspect her chastity. He ordered his sons one by one to punish their mother but four of them refused on one pretext or the other. The sage cursed them to become eunuchs and got her beheaded by his fifth son, Parashuram. To everybody's astonishment, Renuka's head multiplied by tens and hundreds and moved to different regions. This miracle made her four eunuch sons and others to become her followers, and worship her head.
Toward the end of the 19th century, there was a spurt of social movements in India. Nationalism and search for national identity led to social movements relating to devadasis. These movements can be classified into two categories: Reformists/Abolitionists and Revivalists.
Reformists and abolitionists
Reformists and abolitionists consider the devadasi a social evil, being prostitutes. The first anti-Nautch and anti-dedication movement was launched in 1882. "Their main aim was to do away with this system. Reform lobbyists were drawn mainly from Social reformers, doctors, journalists and social workers. They urged the abolition of all ceremonies and procedures by which girls dedicated themselves as Devadasis of Hindu shrines. They organized seminars and conferences to create a public opinion against the Devadasi system. In the later part of 1892 an appeal was made to the viceroy and governor general of India and to the governor of Madras. This appeal also defined the position of the anti-nautch movement (Jogan Shankar, 1990).
For the reform lobbyists — Hindu reformists, doctors, journalists, administrators and social workers — it was precisely these features of the devadasi institution which were reprehensible in the utmost. The portrayal of the devadasi system as "prostitution" sought to advertise the grotesqueness of the subject population for political ends, while the British colonial authorities officially maintained most brothels in India. For those who supported imperialism on the grounds of its "civilizing" function, programs of reform had ideological rewards.
Due to the devadasi being equated to prostitutes, they also became associated with the spreading of venereal disease in India. During the British Colonial period, many British soldiers were exposed to venereal disease in the various brothels being operated at that time. As such, devadasis were understood to be responsible for this. In efforts to control the spread of venereal disease, the British Government mandated that all prostitutes register themselves, with devadasis being forced to do this as well, as they were thought to be prostitutes by the British Government. In addition to obligatory registration, the British Government also established institutions known as Lock Hospitals, where women were brought in order to be treated for venereal diseases. However, many of the women admitted to these hospitals, including many devadasi women, were identified through the registry and then brought to the hospitals against their will, with a number of these women never seen again by their families.
Some journals and newspapers like The Indian Social Reformer and Lahore Purity Servant supported the reformist or abolitionist movement. The movement initially concentrated on building public opinion and enlisting members to refuse to attend Nautch parties as well as to refuse to invite devadasis to festivities at their homes. Around 1899, the anti-Nautch and puritan movement turned its attention to stopping dedications. The anti-Nautch movement paved the way for anti-dedication movement.
The social reform movements, spearheaded by Ram Mohan Roy, Periyar, Muthulakshmi Reddy, S. Muthiah Mudaliar, Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, M. Krishnan Nair, C. N. Annadurai, Karunanidhi, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Govind Ranade, Dhondo Keshav Karve, and other prominent social thinkers, questioned the practice of devadasi system and pleaded for its abolition.
In 2011, Rationalist Debashis, the general secretary of Rationalists' and Humanists' Forum of India, filed complain and got four people, arrested who were involved in making devdasi in Yellamma Temple. Since then devdasi system in Yellamma temple had stopped.
The Hindu revival movement consciously stepped outside the requirements of state electoral politics and western scientific traditions. The movement received strong support from the Theosophical Society of India, whose anti-official stance and strong interest in Indian home rule bound them with the revival of dance and music.
Pioneers like Madam H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott, the founders of the Theosophical movement, had undertaken an extensive tour of South India and propagated the revival of devadasi institutions and the associated art of sadir. They gained support from some sections of the native elite by their public denouncement of western Christian morality and materialism. In 1882, the Theosophical Society of India had set up its headquarters in Adyar, Chennai with the set goal of working towards the restoration of India's ancient glory in art, science, and philosophy.
The support later given to a revival of sadir as Bharatnatyam by the Theosophical Society was largely due to the efforts of Rukmini Devi Arundale, an eminent theosophist, and E. Krishna Iyer. Arundale, trained in ballet, sought to reappropriate the devadasi dance traditions and bring them into a context which could be perceived as respectable. She did this by changing the dance repertoire to exclude pieces perceived as erotic in their description of a deity. She also systematized the dance in a way that incorporated the extension and use of space associated with dance traditions such as ballet. The product of this transformation was Bharatnatyam, which she then began to teach professionally at a school she established in Madras called Kalakshetra. Bharatnatyam is commonly propagated as a very ancient dance tradition associated with the Natyasastra. However, in reality, Bharatnatyam as it is performed and known today is a product of Arundale's endeavour to remove the devadasi dance tradition from the perceived immoral context of the devadasi community and bring it into the upper caste performance milieu.
The Theosophical Society Adyar provided the necessary funds and organization to back Arundale as the champion for India’s renaissance in the arts, especially Bharatnatyam. The revivalists tried to present the idealistic view of the institution of devadasi. According to their view, it was the model of the ancient temple dancer as pure, sacred, and chaste women, as they were originally.
They stressed that the dance of devadasi was a form of "natya yoga" to enhance an individual's spiritual plane. The revivalists wanted to preserve the traditional form of sadir dance by purifying it. As a consequence of purification, some modifications were introduced into the content of the dance, which was strongly criticized by dancer Balasaraswati and other prominent representatives of the traditional devadasi culture. The revivalists mostly belonged to Brahmin dominated Theosophical circles. Many Brahmin girls started to learn the dance from devadasis.
The first legal initiative to outlaw the devadasi system dates back to the 1934 Bombay Devadasi Protection Act. This act pertained to the Bombay province as it existed in the British Raj. The Bombay Devadasi Protection Act made dedication of women illegal, whether consensual or not. According to this act, marriage by a devadasi was to be considered lawful and valid, and the children from such wedlock were to be treated as legitimate. The Act also laid down grounds for punitive action that could be taken against any person or persons found to be involved in dedications, except the woman who was being dedicated. Those found guilty of such acts could face a year’s imprisonment, a fine, or both. The 1934 Act also provided rules, which were aimed at protecting the interests of the devadasis. Whenever there was a dispute over ownership of land involving a devadasi, the local Collector was expected to intervene.
The devadasi practices have changed considerably over the last centuries.
From the late medieval period until 1910, the Pottukattu or tali-tying dedication ceremony, was a widely advertised community event requiring the full cooperation of the local religious authorities. It initiates a young girl into the devadasi profession and is performed in the temple by the priest. In the Brahminical tradition marriage is viewed as the only religious initiation (diksha) permissible to women. Thus the dedication is a symbolic "marriage" of the pubescent girl to the temple's deity.
In the sadanku or puberty ceremonies, the devadasi-initiate begins her marriage with an emblem of the god borrowed from the temple as a stand-in 'bridegroom'. From then onward, the devadasi is considered a nitya sumangali: a woman eternally free from the adversity of widowhood.
She would then perform her ritual and artistic duties in the temple. The puberty ceremonies were an occasion not only for temple honor, but also for community feasting and celebration in which the local elites also participated. The music and dance and public display of the girl also helped to attract patrons.
The Orissa Gazette of 1956 mentions some occasions where the devadasis danced. They had two daily rituals. The Bahar Gaaunis would dance at the Sakaala Dhupa. Lord Jagannath, after breakfast, would give Darshan to the bhaktas (the devotees). In the Main hall, a devadasi accompanied by musicians and the Rajguru, the court guru, would dance, standing near the Garuda sthambha (pillar). This dance could be watched by the audience. They would perform only pure dance here. The Bhitar Gaunis would sing at the Badashringhar, the main ceremony for ornamenting and dressing the God. Lord Jagannath, at bedtime, would be first served by male Sebaets- they would fan Him and decorate Him with flowers. After they would leave, a Bhitar Gaauni would then enter the room, stand near the door (Jaya Vijay) and sing Gita Govinda songs, and perhaps perform a ritualistic dance. After a while, she would come out and announce that the Lord has gone to sleep and then the guard would close the main gate.
Life after dedication
A devadasi's life after dedication was obviously very different centuries ago. Nowadays
After dedication of a girl to the temple, she has to take bath every day early in the morning and should present herself at the temple during morning worship of Yellamma. She is not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. But she will bow to the deity from outside. Thereafter she sweeps compound of the temple. Every Tuesday and Friday she goes for yoga along with senior jogatis (yoga teachers). During this period she learns innumerable songs in praise of Yellamma and her son Parashurama. If she shows some aptitude to learn playing instruments she will be given training by her elder jogatis. In Yellampura and other villages Devadasis do not dance but this is performed by eunuch companions. The main functions of Devadasis would be singing and playing stringed musical instruments and Jagate. They form a small group and go for joga, from house to house on every Tuesday and Friday (Jogan Shankar, 1990).
Traditionally, no stigma was attached to the devadasi or to her children, and other members of their caste received them on terms of equality. The children of a devadasi were considered legitimate and devadasis themselves were outwardly indistinguishable from married women of their own community. Chakyar-s and Nangyaramma-s of Kerala, who performed similar duties, for example, have enjoyed good social status.
Furthermore, a devadasi was believed to be immune from widowhood and was called akhanda saubhagyavati ("woman never separated from good fortune"). Since she was wedded to a divine deity, she was supposed to be one of the especially welcome guests at weddings and was regarded as a bearer of good fortune. At weddings, people would receive a string of the tali (wedding lock) prepared by her, threaded with a few beads from her own necklace. The presence of a devadasi on any religious occasion in the house of an upper caste member was regarded as sacred and she was treated with due respect and was presented with gifts.
Contemporary statistical data
India's National Commission for Women, which is mandated to protect and promote the welfare of women, has collected information on the prevalence of devadasis in various states. The government of Odisha has stated that the devadasi system is not prevalent in the state. There is only one Devadasi in Odisha, in a Puri temple. Similarly the government of Tamil Nadu wrote that this system has been eradicated and there are now no devadasis in the state. Andhra Pradesh has identified 16,624 devadasis within its state and Karnataka has identified 22,941. The government of Maharashtra did not provide the information as sought by the Commission. However, the state government provided statistical data regarding the survey conducted by them to sanction a "Devadasi Maintenance Allowance". A total of 8,793 applications were received and after conducting a survey 6,314 were rejected and 2,479 devadasis were declared eligible for the allowance. At the time of sending the information, 1,432 Devadasis were receiving this allowance.
According to a study by the Joint Women’s Programme of the Bangalore for National Commission for Women, girls who have to accept becoming a devadasi, few reasons were provided, which included dumbness, deafness, poverty, and others. The life expectancy of devadasi girls is low compared to the average of the country, it is rare to find devadasis older than fifty.
In popular culture
In 1984, TS Ranga made a Hindi film, Giddh, based on the theme of exploitation of young girls in the name of the Devadasi tradition with the film's story set in a village on the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka. It starred Smita Patil and Om Puri in the lead roles.
In 2016, a show named Krishnadasi started airing on Colors TV which is based on the lives of devdasis married to lord krishna.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Devadasi.|
- Devadasis - Sinned or Sinned Against? by Anil Chawla.
- Given to Goddess - Article on the Yellama Cult of India, 31, July, 2000
- Slaves to the goddess of fertility by Damian Grammaticas - BBC News, 8 June 2007 in which it's claimed that devadasis are 'sanctified prostitutes'.
- Serving the Goddess, The dangerous life of a sacred sex worker by William Dalrymple. The New Yorker, 4 August 2008
- Devadasi video Mystery - Article about 1930 video capture at Baroda
- Devadasi System In India: How Religion Sanctions This Tradition